I am now writing a book based on the wanderings of Ulysses. ‘The Odyssey,’ that is to say, serves me as a ground plan. Only my time is recent and all my hero’s wanderings take no more than 18 hours. – James Joyce, 1918
For a discussion of this topic, check out our podcast episode here.
Welcome to the first post in an occasional series in which I read The Odyssey, break down the references in each of Ulysses’ eighteen episodes and pull out the ancient Greek parallels. Ulysses has its basis in Homer’s ancient Greek epic, so exploring the journeys of Leopold Bloom and Odysseus side by side seems like an obvious route. However, a word of caution: while The Odyssey is present in the text of Ulysses, knowing and understanding the Homeric parallels in Ulysses will only take you so far and will sometimes present you with “false friends” – apparent parallels where there are none. It’s kind of like the Spanish word embarazada. It looks a lot like a familiar English word, but using it to mean embarrassment might lead to… well, embarrassment.
Just so we’re clear on terms – “Homeric parallels” are the ways in which Ulysses is modeled on Homer’s Odyssey. “Ulysses” is the Latin name for the main character (Odysseus in Greek) after all. If you’ve used a reading guide or annotation to Ulysses, you’ve likely noticed that each episode in the novel is given a title corresponding to The Odyssey. The first chapter about Stephen and the boys in the tower is called “Telemachus,” for instance. Although these designations are common coin amongst Ulysses enthusiasts, they never appeared in any published edition of the book. They were popularized by Stuart Gilbert after they appeared in his 1930 book Ulysses – A Study. Joyce provided Gilbert with a schema outlining his novel as well as prominent themes and parallels in each episode. If you use an annotation that lists the corresponding organ, color, art etc. for each chapter, these also have their roots in Joyce’s schemata.